With Afghanistan around Their Necks, Austin and Milley Must Resign

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There is only one way for senior military leaders and political appointees to object publicly to the president’s decisions: submit their resignation.  Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifically prohibits commissioned officers from using contemptuous words against the president and certain other public officials, and, for civilian political appointees, showing public disagreement with the president would certainly result in dismissal.

Yet, despite the strategic blunder created by the president in precipitously abandoning Afghanistan, neither Gen. Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, nor Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has submitted his resignation.  Rather, both have acquiesced to the president’s assertion that there was a “unanimous recommendation” from the U.S. national security team that shuttering Bagram Air Base and conducting a chaotic retreat from Afghanistan through Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) was the right course of action.  As we saw unfolding through the clear lens of hundreds of smartphones, media cameras, and eyewitness reports, the unscripted retreat from Afghanistan was an abysmal tactical and strategic mistake, which led to the unnecessary deaths of thirteen U.S. servicemen, an angry and questioning multi-national coalition, and thousands of disgusted military veterans and servicemembers.

The case for resignation is strong, and resignations are necessary to restore not only the personal credibility of those resigning, but also the pre-eminence of the U.S. military among the world’s global competitors.  Let’s review:

The secretary and chairman both agreed with the president’s decision to close Bagram Air Base following the president’s decision to reduce force presence in Afghanistan while maintaining a functioning embassy during the withdrawal.   Even a novice military strategist would know that compared to Bagram, HKIA is an indefensible location, which exponentially increases risk to force for conducting a large-scale non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO).  If the secretary and chairman gave advice not to close Bagram merely for “getting the troops down to a 600, 700 number,” but were ignored, they should have resigned at that moment to demonstrate that the risk was unacceptable and unnecessary.  If they failed to provide that advice, they should resign for cause.

The chairman stated, and the secretary concurred, that “there was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this Army or this government within 11 days.”  Why not?  He and the secretary both claim to be avid students of history, yet they failed to understand that a central government — to include an army and national police force — is anathema to a traditionally tribal Afghan society.  Most of us have long understood that a desire for a democratic government is not in an Afghan’s DNA, so we were not surprised at the army’s quick capitulation.  The secretary and chairman should have learned that lesson from their years of experience in the Middle East as most of us have without such experience.  Perhaps Secretary Austin remained optimistic the Afghan Army would endure and fight, as he did while spending $500 million to train a total of “four or five” Syrian resistance fighters while he was CENTCOM commander.

Both leaders failed to ensure that DOD retrograded thousands of pieces of high-grade, militarily useful unit equipment including aircraft, surface vehicles, weapons, and ammunition, now available to the Taliban for their own combatant operations or for exploitation and sale to U.S. competitors.  The secretary’s and chairman’s failure to plan for the return of this equipment and failure to ascertain the severity of leaving it in Afghanistan in their advice to the president is cause for resignation.  Rendering some equipment at HKIA and Bagram non–mission capable does not account for the huge volume of military equipment across the country that remains in the Taliban’s hands.

In their decision to retreat to HKIA as an operating location for the NEO, they relied on the Taliban to provide exterior perimeter security.  They apparently received assurances from the Taliban — sworn enemies of U.S. presence in Afghanistan — that only legitimate evacuees would be permitted to approach U.S. forces.  In the delusional comments of the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Taliban and the U.S. have a “common interest” in the U.S. departure from Afghanistan.  How quaint.  And how dangerous.

The rapid, unplanned, uncoordinated departure from Afghanistan has weakened U.S. legitimacy around the globe, the effects of which will become apparent in the next need for coalition action or active U.S. presence abroad.  Who will rely on the U.S. to stand by him when he is pressured, or worse, attacked, by the Chinese or the Russians?  Should Taiwan or Hong Kong be reassured by our Afghan exit?  Should Israel depend on the U.S. for support against, at times, overwhelming opposition?  Should South Korea be concerned that U.S. presence to maintain the ceasefire with the North be maintained?  These strategic concerns should have been part of the overall decision process in exiting Afghanistan and certainly the most critical advice given to the president by the secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, yet it appears that both these leaders merely attempted to execute a disastrously flawed decision by the president.

History has not been kind to military leaders who executed abhorrent policy decisions; failed to speak the truth about risks to force or national security; or blamed others for bad strategic, operational, or tactical decisions.  As such, Sec. Austin and Chairman Milley are duty- and honor-bound to render their resignations not only to be accountable for the shameful exit, but to restore their personal credibility and to return the U.S. military to a credible fighting force in the eyes of the world.  Remaining in their positions only continues the false narrative that the Afghanistan withdrawal was an “extraordinary success” according to President Biden.  It is noteworthy that Chairman Milley was quick to apologize when he accompanied President Trump to St. John’s Chapel after liberal criticism in last year’s protests, but he has yet to apologize for flawed decisions and advice for the Afghan exit.  He should do no less in his resignation.

Mr. LaFrance is a retired USAF officer and former government civilian, having served eight years in the Pentagon and ten years as a DoD liaison to Congress.

Image: PBS NewsHour via YouTube.

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